America’s Prudent Pivot

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America’s Prudent Pivot

Far from destabilizing Asia, a bolstered U.S. presence softens the instability regional changes create.

The Obama administration is pivoting en masse this week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just been in Australia and Singapore, the recently signed-up hosts of, respectively, U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy littoral combat ships. Soon President Barack Obama will build on the diplomatic momentum when he visits Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. He will be joined by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, whose presence underscores the security focus of Washington’s Asia initiative.

But is this a case of rebalancing or overbalancing? The plan certainly has its detractors, with critics suggesting that the pivot is all a waste of time – or worse, that it’s harmful to the security of the United States. Among them is Robert Ross, who argues in the latest Foreign Affairs that the pivot is “unnecessary and counterproductive”. James Holmes has already pointed out elsewhere on The Diplomat that Ross makes some rather bold assumptions about the U.S. military’s capability advantages over the PLA. But what about Ross’s other, strategic arguments?

Ross main gripe is that the U.S. pivot will provoke China into behaving more aggressively, rather than helping to restrain it. He says:–

“The new U.S. policy unnecessarily compounds Beijing’s insecurities and will only feed China’s aggressiveness, undermine regional stability, and decrease the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.”

But there’s another way of looking at it: That the pivot to Asia is the ultimate compliment that Washington could possibly have paid to an insecure, rising power that is deeply image-conscious and uncertain of its status. After all, this is really a pivot to China, not to Asia. The pivot gives China the affirmation that it craves – membership of a presumptive G2, and a level of recognition, of face, that should promote, rather than frustrate, peer-level cooperation.

Sino-U.S. cooperation only becomes difficult for China when the U.S. crosses specific red lines, such as by directly intervening in a dispute between China and another state in the region. The U.S. has not done this and has no desire to, because the pivot is a status-quo policy. It is all about preserving the red lines as they currently exist (including China’s), about broadly maintaining the region’s current geopolitical structure in the face of the stresses created by China’s emergence, and about preserving U.S. power more or less in its current form.

Ross thinks that the pivot threatens regional stability. But what is instability, if not unwelcome change? It is the advent of an assertive and unrestrained China that strikes Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and others in the region as an unwelcome change, not the increased U.S. presence designed to counter it. That’s why they all support making the pivot happen. The pivot is all about preserving the stability and security that the region currently enjoys, by ensuring that China’s rise shifts the regional balance but does not upend it entirely.

Ross doesn’t see it this way, however. He thinks that the pivot is increasing the likelihood of conflict in the Asia-Pacific. He says:

“…the Obama administration’s pivot has not contributed to stability in Asia. Quite the opposite: it has made the region more tense and conflict-prone.”

This is a misleading characterization: East Asia may be tense, but it is not conflict-prone. The recent tensions to which he refers have resulted from confrontations (none of which escalated into conflicts) between China and other countries in the region, chiefly Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. The pivot did not cause these disputes. However, a robust U.S. presence in the region does act as a firebreak between tension and conflict when these disputes flare up. The pivot means that that firebreak will remain effective, even as the Chinese military becomes more powerful.

Finally, Ross damns the pivot as being entirely self-defeating:

“Herein lies the great irony of the pivot: a strategy that was meant to check a rising China has sparked its combativeness and damaged its faith in cooperation.”

I like the sound of this pivot-less world which Ross imagines. It is one in which China is no longer combative: It is nice to Japan and the Philippines, and listens to their points of view on territorial matters, all because it no longer feels targeted by the U.S. It is a world in which China puts faith in cooperation with Washington: It sees that the U.S. is willing to move aside to accommodate its rise, and out of respect for that position identifies the U.S. as a country that it can work with not out of necessity, but out of choice.

But that isn’t the world we’re living. In the end, Ross has it the wrong way round. It is China that is changing the Asia-Pacific, not the U.S. and its pivot. The U.S. can seek to soften these inevitable changes, or it can sit back and hope for the best. The latter approach sounds risky: Pivoting is prudence.